College Basketball saw the 249th duel of its most prestigious rivalry Wednesday night, as Duke and North Carolina squared off inside the confines of Duke’s Cameron Indoor Stadium. It was reported that, unless you were a student attending the Durham campus, tickets sold at the starting price of $3,000, just to get your foot in the door.
This was a major spectacle that fans of the great game down in North Carolina tuned in to witness, becoming the most watched weeknight game in ESPN history, according to the network.
The game delivered a Nielsen reported audience of 4,343,000 viewers worldwide, surpassing the record of 4,140,000 viewers from another Duke-UNC game in February of 2015. The Rivalry Week matchup ranked as the fifth most-watched college basketball game in ESPN history and is the most-watched college basketball game on ESPN since 2014 when Duke and Syracuse played each other.
The viewing numbers for men’s college basketball on ESPN have been pretty good in the past couple of years as ratings have gone up 15 percent year over year. ESPN networks have aired the 82 most-viewed games on cable, including four of the top five across all networks.
The spectacle of the Tobacco Road Rivalry is, in itself, packed with pageantry due to his extensive history that stretches through decades. Yet, what made the story juicy this year was the emergence of phenom Zion Williamson, the 6-foot-8, 280-pound power forward who is far and away the nation’s best player, and NBA draft boards most coveted prospect coming out of college.
The freshmen quartet of Williamson, RJ Barrett, Tre Jones, and Cam Reddish were prone to putting on a show for their fans at home, but this regular season matchup against their cross-town opponents had a little special magic in the air. Celebrities traveled far and wide to witness the athletic prowess of the freshmen at Duke, and names like Spike Lee and President Barack Obama made their way to Durham.
To the chagrin of Blue Devils fans inside their gym, all of the hype quickly silenced itself when, 36 seconds into this high stakes matchup, Williamson received a dribble handoff from Cam Reddish, took three dribbles and attempted to spin away from the grasp of UNC’s Luke Maye before his shoe burst from the inertia of Williamson’s explosive maneuver, leaving the entire right side of his “PG 2.5” ripped through like it was an old newspaper.
The rubber sole and mesh toe wasn’t the only casualty from the otherwise routine move from Williamson. The freshman sensation immediately grabbed the back of his left knee as the usual supportive Duke home cheers morphed into gasps, shock, and awe. Duke went on to lose that game by nearly 20 points, and the first of two matchups between North Carolina and Duke was an anticlimactic, disappointing dud compared to the built up hype injected into the Wednesday night primetime game.
Nonetheless, Duke and North Carolina fans will be tuning into their television screens on March 9, when a hopefully healthy Zion Williamson makes his way to Chapel Hill in a second chance at making the hype of Duke-UNC all worth it.